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Schools trying different ways to teach foreign languages

Gone are the days of verb conjugation worksheets for days on end in foreign language classes. Many schools today are focusing more on the ability to understand and speak the language rather than the finer details of grammar.

“Our program focuses on the development of student comprehension and verbal abilities, mirroring the process of first-language acquisition,” explains Kasey Taylor, who is in her 21st year of teaching Spanish at The Latin School in Chicago.

Similarly, at The Avery Coonley School in Downers Grove, all students in kindergarten through eighth grade take French. Teacher Denise Clivaz says the emphasis is on teaching students to effectively make their point verbally in French, and that means less focusing on minor grammar quibbles and more on the practical application of what students are learning.

“You don’t have to be perfect to be understood. In fact, we often don’t speak our first language perfectly, so why should we expect them to be perfect in a second language?” she explains.  Clivaz and a colleague at Avery Coonley have developed a curriculum that focuses on communicating and about 80 schools have adopted it.

That same emphasis on practical application is evident at the Wolcott School in Chicago.

“We don’t talk about the language, we use it,” explains Spanish teacher Elaine Winer. For a final exam, students create original stories using the most frequently used Spanish words, create a visual without words to support the story and tell it to the class.

For students in these schools, foreign language lessons extend beyond the language.

“The most powerful influence of early language learning, other than second language skills, is the ability to foster the growth of globally minded individuals,” says Taylor. “This is such an important aspect of 21st century learning – helping students become individuals that are open to understanding and appreciating diversity and have a desire to contribute to an inclusive and accepting world.”

Both Winer and Mazoyer note that students learning a foreign language also gain empathy for those learning other languages, including English. Learning a language is not easy, but the struggle gives students a tenacity and resilience that they can apply to other classes and to challenging endeavors beyond the classroom.

“Students also become more humble and more creative as they learn to communicate in new ways,” says Beatrice Mazoyer, a French teacher at Lycée Français de Chicago.

“Learning a language develops problem-solving skills because students are constantly figuring things out and asking questions,” she says. “Language students must ask themselves questions and that ability to question carries over to other subjects.”

That isn’t the only cross-over between subjects. Learning a world language often ties into different academic classes, such as history, art, and music.

“We wrote our Spanish curriculum one year at a time to intentionally incorporate as many cross-curricular connections as possible,” says Taylor. For example, when second graders study immigration in social studies that lends itself to numerous tie-ins with Spanish class. “Other teachers also work with us to find collaborative opportunities such as music and art and even P.E.,” she adds.

Part of Making the Grade, a special advertising education guide.

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